Once upon a time in Germany…

Exeposé Features online (18 December 2015)

Two very creepy things happened in Berlin at the beginning of December. First, police warned the public not to eat anything offered for free. Why? Oh, because some woman had been handing out Christmassy biscuits laced with rat poison.

“Sickness after eating biscuits – #witnesseswanted – be careful when accepting foodstuffs offered for free”

Secondly – and for the first time EVER – a wolf was photographed inside the city motorway ring.

“What many people don’t know is that wolves sometimes like to eat apples”

At The Local, they grouped these two stories together, under the headline: “Real-life fairytale villains haunt Berlin this winter.”

It seemed fairly apt. Sneaky wolves, evil witches with poison… “Which fairy-tale had poison in it again?” we wondered in the office. Hansel and Gretel? No; that bitch tried to cook the kids in the oven. Ah! Snow White. That was the one with the poisoned apple.

“What actually happened to the witch in the end?” I asked. She fell off a cliff, someone remembered. Well, in the Disney version she did. But what about the original Brothers Grimm version? Because that’s where it all started, really

Born in Hanau, Germany in 1785 and 1786, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are famed for collecting old European folk stories and turning them into the fairytales we read today. In “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” published in 1812, you’ll find all kinds of classics – just maybe not as you’ve seen them in Disney cartoons.

“In the Brothers Grimm Snow White, they put the stepmother in a pair of red-hot shoes and make her dance until she dies,” one of my colleagues told me.

What?! Yeah, I know: she dies either way. But this burning-shoes business just seemed so much more… messed up.

But once I began to look into these gruesome German stories, that wasn’t the only shocker. You know Cinderella? When the ugly stepsisters try to cram their feet into the glass slipper? In the Grimm version, one cuts off her toes and the other cuts off her heel to try and fool the prince. Oh, and in the end a dove gouges out their eyes.

Ew. Gross. But actually, all this talk of gruesome fairytales reminded me of a feature I’d written a few weeks ago, about another classic German children’s story: the 1865 collection Max und Moritz, by Wilhelm Busch.

“I don’t think I’ve ever read the book myself, but I’ve had the stories told to me by my parents,” 23-year-old Jana from Berlin told me, when I asked German friends what they knew about the tale.

“I always found it completely gruesome,” she said. “The pranks, and how they end up being baked at the end, it was all too much for me!”

For anyone unfamiliar with Max und Moritz (as I was), this “Story of Seven Boyish Pranks” follows a couple of young mischief-makers as they play pranks on family and neighbours.

And by “pranks,” I mean: killing chickens; trying to drown a guy; filling their teacher’s pipe with gunpowder and pouring bugs into their uncle’s bed.

What is it with these 19th century German writers?! But today’s youngsters still enjoy grisly tales, apparently.

Munich’s International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) recently carried out a survey of 1,210 children between 3 and 13, to find out which fairytales are most popular in Germany today.

While the top fairytales for girls were Cinderella (“Aschenputtel”) and Snow White (“Schneewittchen”), boys seemed to prefer reading Hansel and Gretel or Puss in Boots (“der gestiefelten Kater”).

The survey showed that young girls prefer stories where females take the lead roles, whereas boy like male protagonists, and/or a convincing male “baddie.”

But Hansel and Gretel also featured in the top five for the girls. Likewise, Snow White made the cut for the boys. And Little Red Riding Hood (“Rottkäpchen”) was popular with both genders. This is the story where a wolf eats a girl and her grandmother, but a hunter cuts him open, gets them out and fills the wolf with stones instead.

Basically: regardless of gender, German kids don’t seem to mind gore when it comes to fairytales.

On average, most children surveyed could name five fairytales off the top of their head – with Grimm Brothers stories the most popular.

“Fairytales are still a particularly valuable genre for children and families today,” fairytale expert Jürgen Barthelmes told Münchner Abendzeitung.

“They can comfort children and give them courage to tackle everyday difficulties and problems in new ways.”

I’m not sure Busch’s Max and Moritz is altogether comforting. But asking a German friend about the tale, I was surprised by her enthusiasm.

“I found Max and Moritz great!” Nicole, a student in the Hessian town of Kassel told me.

“My grandma always read the stories to me,” she added. “I’d say that every German child should know the story of Max and Moritz!”

But what about the violence? The bugs? The gunpowder? The murder?!
“I was always afraid of Widow Bolte,” Nicole admitted,” but kids can learn a lot from the stories.” (Widow Bolte, by the way, is the owner of the murdered chickens. Unsurprisingly, she’s pretty peeved by this.)

Even Jana agreed there was an educational aim in the stories. “They were published at a time when people were trying to teach children lessons in this way,” she told me.

So what happens to Max and Moritz when they’re finally caught out? Are they sent to bed with no dinner? Grounded for the foreseeable future?

Actually, that last one’s not far off – but in a horrifically literal way. After the baker tries to make them into a pie, the two boys are caught trying to cut open Farner Melke’s grain sacks. Furious, the farmer grinds the kids to pieces in the grain mill, then feeds the fragments of their mangled bodies to the ducks.

So basically, the lesson for 19th century German children was that they’d better be good. Otherwise they might get cooked alive or ground to pieces.

But this whole “be good or you’ll get punished” thing isn’t so foreign to German kids.

In the UK we have Santa, who’ll leave your stocking empty if you’ve been naughty. But in Germany, they also have Sankt Nikolaus – and his sinister alter ego Knecht Ruprecht. Mess him around and you’ll get a switch of wood for your parents to spank you with.

I’m going to talk at length about this festive Jekyll and Hyde-type character next time, though.

I mean, sure: Grimm stories were used as propaganda during the Nazi era – but this September,“Grimmwelt” opened up in Kassel, where the brothers spent much of their adult life.In conclusion: German fairytales are grim. But despite their violence, they’re still a celebrated part of German culture.

The museum cost €20 million, and hopes to attract 800,000 visitors per year. If that’s not proof that the Brothers Grimm and their handiwork are still both relevant and wickedly interesting today, I don’t know what is.

Of course, there’s also the fact that when we hear of rogue wolves and poisoned biscuits in Berlin, the Grimm Brothers’ stories are the first thing that spring to mind.

Say what you like about grisly German children’s fiction: it certainly leaves an impression.

>>View original Exeposé feature>>

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